Exterior of Cragfont State Historic Site with blooming flowers in the foreground.

Rethinking Historic House Interpretation at Cragfont

Cragfont State Historic Site in Sumner County is a historic house museum managed by Historic Castalian Springs. Between 1798-1802, General James Winchester had this Federal, Georgian style mansion constructed on the Tennessee frontier. Winchester, his family, and the people they enslaved lived there until 1864 when the family’s youngest son sold the home.

The State of Tennessee purchased the mansion and the surrounding acreage in 1958, and Cragfont has been open to the public since 1961. The original tours were focused on General Winchester and artifacts in the house, which was common in historic house museums at that time. However, the tours stagnated there without new research or interpretive methods. 

In January 2020, the Tennessee Historical Commission merged the management of Cragfont with two other State-owned Sumner County historic sites, creating the nonprofit Historic Castalian Springs.

A New Interpretive Plan

Tonya Staggs, Historic Castalian Springs’ Executive Director, saw the reorganization of the historic sites and the pause in visitation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as a reset for the houses. “We want to challenge the stories that people have heard about Cragfont,” Staggs says. She also notes that the museum’s audience has changed with people wanting to engage more with stories and find relevance to their own lives.

Historic Castalian Springs received three grants from Humanities Tennessee to create and implement a new strategic interpretive plan based on inclusive storytelling. Staff were already looking for ways to include women’s stories into the tours, and they hired curators and historians Susan Knowles, Brigette Jones, and Rebecca Price to provide outside professional perspectives and interpretations. According to Staggs, “we were already leaning into trying to make the house look lived in and trying to tell stories through the visual setup of the rooms, but Rebecca [Price] really pushed us over the edge…and gave us permission to be a little bit less museumy about it.”

One place this interpretive style is evident is in the upstairs bedroom that belonged to teenaged Almira. The room is messy. There’s clothes strewn on the bed, books piled on the desk, and crumpled papers on the chair. It looks like a 16-year-old girl lives there. In the parents’ bedroom/nursery, toys are scattered on the floor. According to Catie Latham, the museum’s Collections and Operations Manager, this emphasis is intentional because “our tours can have any age groups…we want a tour that relates to anyone who walks through here.”

In a similar vein, the guest bedroom currently tells the story of Dom José Bernardo Guitièrrez de Lara, a Mexican revolutionary who stayed for two nights in 1811 on his way to ask President James Madison for military aid. His diary details the pranks the Winchester kids played on him and their desire for him to draw pictures and teach them basic Spanish. Latham recalls that this story got a big laugh from a tour group of Hispanic students.

The new tours also interpret enslaved individuals’ stories throughout the house. Placed in each room are framed silhouettes with the names of enslaved men and women who likely worked in those places. In some instances, the records only indicate a person’s name. However, staff research has uncovered lots of information about Delphy, the enslaved woman who cooked at Cragfont for over thirty years. The redesigned kitchen focuses on her work and includes historic food reproductions, the mortar and pestle she used, and her cramped and dark living quarters in the loft above. Her story is included on the Hidden History tours, which recently won a Leadership in History Award of Excellence from the American Association of State and Local History.

Continuing Projects

From the interpretive planning process, it became clear that the museum needed to do more to interpret enslaved individuals’ stories. Historic Castalian Springs incorporates three sites, which means three different enslaved populations. Stagg notes, “we’ve got [large] amounts of information about enslaved communities, which is a good problem to have, but sorting it and trying to make sense of it” is a large endeavor. An ongoing grant-funded project is to create a database of the enslaved individuals staff can document across the sites. The goal is to create a public-facing working document that anyone doing genealogical or historical research can access. Internally, the database will allow the staff to see larger trends occurring across the sites to enhance interpretation. The database will also provide “room to grow so we don’t get stagnated and the tour doesn’t end up staying the same,” Stagg says. It is also something the organization hopes to offer to the descendant community of the sites’ enslaved populations.

This project led directly into the organization’s inclusive storytelling project, which will use an online video series to share the staff’s work uncovering new documentation about Cragfont’s enslaved population donated by the widow of a Winchester descendant including copies of letters from James Winchester that revealed his attitudes towards slavery. The video series will allow them to show the historical process in action and explain how interpretation changes at a historical site as new evidence is discovered.

Looking Towards the Future

Staggs sees the interpretive work at Cragfont – and the two other sites Historic Castalian Springs manages – as an ongoing and unending process. One of her ideas is to incorporate historical landscapes into the interpretation. Additionally, Cragfont’s interior will soon have a different look as rooms are repainted to match their historic colors uncovered by a recent paint analysis. No matter what, future interpretations at the site will tell multiple stories so that “it doesn’t feel just like James Winchester’s story.” She continues, “I want to keep going on that path, and I want to challenge us to think of historic house museums differently…and finding how as a historic house museum [we] can connect to audiences today.”

Historic house museums have the potential to give visitors a sense of place and community. “By understanding your place in the world,” Stagg says, “you are usually a better contributor to the world. You become a better citizen, a better person, and a better community member…I think historic house museums have that potential to help make us better.